The provocative title of this year’s International Eventing Forum, “Risky Business,” may not have been quite to everyone’s liking, but the day itself delivered a whole sequence of subtle training treasures for the 350 delegates on Feb. 7 at Hartpury College in Gloucester, England.
Run in partnership by former Olympic eventing judge Jean Mitchell, international coach and judge Eric Smiley and Hartpury College, this annual gathering deserves to be a success with outstanding speakers, facilities and organization.
In his introduction to the forum, Smiley suggested that “without some risk in sport there would be no achievement. The key is to manage the risk.”
Graeme Cook, Veterinary Director of the Fédération Equestre Internationale, also emphasized that we have to manage the risk for our horses. “This is an important part of how we present equestrian sport as a whole. All the international equine sports continue to be in a period of rapid worldwide expansion, and it’s both a huge sport and huge industry with every 10 horses producing one job. We cannot have abuse of horses otherwise we all suffer.”
The undoubted highlight of the day was a rare chance to hear William Fox-Pitt explain some of his training methods and philosophy. As we know from his extraordinary competitive record on numerous horses, he is the complete event rider—very good in all three phases even under championship pressure.
He is also very successful at choosing horses and training them from the novice level to the advanced, which in practice is a rare talent in the modern competition rider. On top of all this, he is a great communicator and hugely likable person. If there was ever a leader in waiting for British Eventing, William Fox-Pitt is the man.
As U.S. Equestrian Federation officials embark on a search for a new chef d’equipe and national coach, the brain and personality of Fox-Pitt offers a mental template that is worth studying. He says there is plenty of time left before he wants to train racehorses, so possibly this is an alternative route for him if he retires from riding after the 2012 Olympic Games.
The day also included a dressage demonstration by German trainer Ferdi Eilberg, show jumping with Maria Gretzer from Sweden, cross-country with Ireland’s Smiley and a short presentation by Cooke, who is the FEI Veterinary Director on the Clean Sport Initiative.
Dressage: Begin At The Beginning And Respect Your Horse
Eilberg took few risks when opening the day. This renowned dressage trainer began his career by training with Reiner Klimke in Germany before gaining British citizenship and competing in two European Championships as well as the 1994 World Equestrian Games. In 2002, Eilberg was appointed as the British Equestrian Federation’s World Class Performance Director of Coaching, and he is currently the team trainer for the British Junior Team and the Irish Senior Event Team.
His simple central message is one he explains and demonstrates on a regular basis with absolute clarity. It can be summed up as: Look after the basics, have a progressive method, and have respect for your horse.
“Competition work has to be built and supported by the work at home,” said Eilberg. “You need to spend time with a young horse to do the simple things with quality. If you start with a horse early in its education to establish a good way of going, then we can move forwards easily.
“Your horse must know what is good before you can step on their toes a little more and be more demanding,” he continued.
His message lost none of its impact in this presentation, especially with high-level British event stars Mary King and Ruth Edge. For many, Edge stole the show with her usual very high quality work and natural, easy position on a horse.
However, for me the greatest joy was watching Eilberg coach. He remained unflappable yet totally focused, meticulous and demanding yet with deep respect for both horse and rider.
Even in this situation he remained a real coach rather than an actor on a stage. Of even greater importance for eventing is that he is a great role model for other dressage coaches working in eventing. Those who work event horses mechanically increase the risk of a fall across country and need to take note of this type of training.
“You need to recognize a horse’s limits in each area, otherwise when you ask too much you get less,” he explained.
Show Jumping: Be Forward, Positive and Quiet
The 4’1” track, designed by international course builder Kelvin Bywater with various distance challenges, made this session very exciting. But how much more valuable it would have been with a copy of the course plan and distances for each delegate.
Gretzer also made this session very special with an excellent demonstration of her coaching skills. In 1991 she became the first female to win a World Cup Final. She rode at three Olympic Games for Sweden, finishing sixth individually in Barcelona, and 15th individually in Sydney. Today she is head coach of the Swedish national show jumping team.
From the beginning she identified the individual strengths and needs of her riders and quietly developed both their confidence in her and a forward, positive approach to jumping the course.
“Riders must use small aids and do homework so that this is possible in competition,” she said. “Always jump with a light seat, even when making the body more upright, and do not be hectic in front of a fence.”
With a very quick eye and a gentle manner she coaxed great improvement from each of the three riders—Edge, Harry Mead and Lucy Weigersma—even though they are already at a high level.
She discussed striding at length: “Ten years ago it was more normal to add strides, but now with pressure on time strides are not usually added,” she said. “Lines on a curve are easier than those on a straight line because the rider can make a choice of striding patterns rather than be locked in to the course builder’s pattern.”
Cross Country: Let Your Horse Take Responsibility For Himself
Smiley worked successfully and sympathetically with three 5-year-old horses ridden by Laura Collett, Dani Evans and Jess Elliott. He focused on getting these young horses to take more responsibility for looking after themselves when jumping, even when left alone.
“The approach to a fence is the rider’s responsibility, while the take-off is the horse’s responsibility. Therefore there has to be a handover period,” said Smiley. “How often have you given someone a job and then done the job for them? From then on they abrogate their responsibility and wait for you to do this job in the future.
“You play the game and allow the horse to learn. The rider facilitates the horses’ learning by doing nothing, which is the hardest thing,” he continued. “Two heads are only better than one if the two heads work together.”
This is something I consider so important that I make it a top priority in all my work, and later in the day Fox-Pitt explained that this ability is also his top priority in choosing a horse.
Yet in talking to delegates it’s clear that many haven’t yet made the mental jump to accepting that they need to do more work in this area.
Of course the biggest mental jump is to train each phase with the other two in mind as Fox-Pitt does. Many train for their dressage and jumping in a less integrated and appropriate manner, which may not be helpful for their cross-country. Therefore this topic obviously needs to stay on the agenda.
Take The Time To Educate Yourself And Your Horse Properly
William Fox-Pitt with Alice Fox-Pitt
Fox-Pitt and his wife Alice worked wonderfully well together with Alice asking questions and facilitating William. Their demonstration just included three small narrow fences with starey fillers on a 20-meter circle. We learned little about the specific exercises he uses, but his answers and general thoughts are applicable and accessible to most of us and full of both simplicity and good sense. He remains the outstanding man in British Eventing.
“Eventers come in all shapes and sizes but must be athletic and have a good attitude, then they can be trained. There are lots of fantastic horses that win but lots of normal horses that win with good training and preparation. We would not have the top five horses in our yard if we listened to the vet!” said William.
“The most important thing is to remember that a safe horse is a horse that thinks for itself. Go for one that is naturally careful and thoughtful and has a good brain. Are we choosing dressage horses to go cross-country rather than cross-country horses to do dressage? I have made many mistakes with choice of horses, particularly good dressage horses that can’t gallop,” he continued.
He discussed that safety comes from not going beyond a horse’s ability or training level. “You must be realistic.”
When training, William explained that he likes to trot fences on a loose rein. “In canter, I want a horse looking at the fence and judging it, deciding to pick up early or late. I like to let go of my reins and leave it up to them. I believe my horses have to learn to be wrong. Loose jumping and longe jumping is good if horses are relaxed—not big but big enough and solid enough so they think,” he said.
Although it’s caused him to be the butt of many jokes, William always rides with a neck strap. “I put a finger in when jumping or when one bucks,” he said. “It also keeps me from interfering with the rein. A rider interfering with the rein on the way down to the fence is fundamentally dangerous.”
William shared his opinion that riders today have a more difficult time learning to ride cross-country because they don’t go foxhunting or ride in long format three-days. “Now they use the gears too early without learning how to stay at 500 meters per minute or 600 meters per minute and jump out of a really good rhythm in a consistent balance which is better, more efficient and SAFER,” he said. “Therefore education is even more important now.”
He said that mixing it up with hacking or foxhunting is still the most important thing for horse and rider, despite the high demands of dressage in today’s eventing. “Get the horses out of the arena and enjoying themselves to begin,” said William. “I lived for hunting in the past. The most effective training ground for riders is still hunting.”
He also emphasized fitness of horse and rider. “ It’s important that you have a fittening system and stick to it,” he said. “It’s so important that at the end of a course that a horse has energy to be safe and a rider has energy to be safe. It still happens that too many horses are tired. I do pretty much the same fittening for short format as I used to do for long format, but a little more faster work within cantering. I keep suppling work going despite fittening. Horses probably have to be mentally sharper and more alert for modern tracks.”
William recommended that riders take their time bringing horses up the levels. “The longer a horse spends in novice the better, and they learn going slowly,” he said. It takes the adrenaline out of the cross-country. A horse you are training to be careful needs to be able to go slowly to big ditches etc. That really safe ‘in tune’ horse takes three to four years to produce and going slowly cross-country.”
He emphasized that going slowly is especially important with less talented horses. “A true superstar never notices the difference from one level to next, but with lesser ability horses one needs to be more careful,” said William. “They need time to learn vocabulary. Leave gaps, and it’ll come back to bite you. Cosmopolitan never learned to think for himself, and in the Atlanta Olympics he stopped at the bounce because of this.”
He admitted that he has two 9-year-olds aiming for a four-star this year, but he said that was very unusual for him. “At the three-stars for these horses I went for education not speed,” he said. “Education must come before results at the lower levels.”
An Update On The FEI Clean Sport Initiative
There is now an obvious energy and professionalism about the steps being taken both internationally and nationally on the management of risk.
Jonathan Chapman, Chairman of the British Eventing Safety Committee, joined British Eventing National Safety Officer Jonathan Clissold and Cooke to discuss clean sport and FEI initiatives to make eventing safer.
Some memorable quotes from the session included:
“The FEI is trying hard to making the rules clearer, particularly with regard to medication and doping. The rules should fit for a purpose, making things more precise and sanctions clearer and in line with other sports”
“The FEI will have the ability in the future to sanction not just the rider but also the trainer, vet and other national governing body officials if appropriate.”
“There is an ongoing training program for officials to ensure professionalism and uniformity of behavior.”
“There will be continued collection of data, research into protective clothing and how riders should fall, fence construction and design, and resources directed towards training of cross-country coaches. And don’t forget to both wear your riding hat and replace after three years!”
Training and coaching standards continue to be a big intangible, which is why forums such as this are so important and why funding for coach education is central to progress in this area.
William Micklem is an international coach and educational and motivational speaker. He is a Fellow of the British Horse Society and author of The DK Complete Horse Riding Manual, the world’s top-selling training manual. He found Karen and David O’Connor’s three Olympic medalists Biko, Giltedge and Custom Made and breeds event horses, including Karen O’Connor’s Olympic horse Mandiba and Zara Phillip’s High Kingdom. He is also the inventor of the Micklem Bridle, which is now approved for use in dressage by the FEI. www.WilliamMicklem.com